Jews captured in Thessaloniki, July 1942, the German Federal Archive
On 28 October Greece celebrates its second important national holiday, namely the day when in 1940 Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas responded negatively to the ultimatum issued by Italy. It said that Greece must allow the Axis forces to enter the country and take strategic positions. Otherwise, a war would have been declared on it.
In his memoirs published in 1945 ambassador Emanuele Grazzi describes the scene. "I told him, "Mr. Prime Minister, I was ordered to tell you something" and gave him the document. I was watching the excitement in his eyes and hands. With a firm voice and looking into my eyes, Metaxas said, "This means war." I replied that this could be avoided. He replied, "No". I added that if General Papagos... Metaxas interrupted me and said, "No". ("ohi" in Greek which is why the holiday is known as "Ohi Day"). At 5:30 am the same day, Italy attacked the Greek border crossings and Greece was officially involved in World War II.
On the verge of the 44th anniversary of the events, GRReporter presents to its readers an interview about the events of the last phase of the conflict, namely the fate of Greek Jews. We spoke on the subject with historian from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki Maria Kavala. She is a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science and her subject of study is "The Holocaust and the Historical Memory" and "Anti-Semitism in the 20th Century."
The Mayor of Thessaloniki has recently announced that a Holocaust museum will be established in the city. Why should there be such a museum in Thessaloniki?
This is because 96% of the largest Jewish community in Greece, namely that in Thessaloniki, numbering 50,000 out of 70-75,000 people throughout the country, disappeared during the years of the German occupation and under the operation "Final Solution". Thus, the percentage of Greek victims of the Holocaust against Jews in Europe is one of the highest among the Western countries. Perhaps the time has come for that past of the city, which was suppressed for decades (until 1990), to become its history and be presented in a museum.
There were Jews in Thessaloniki even in the 2nd century BC. They spoke Greek and partly Hebrew and Aramaic. Ashkenazi Jews, who came from the north, settled in the city in 1376, and after 1492, Thessaloniki became one of the major sanctuaries for Sephardic Jews who were coming from Spain. During the Ottoman period, the millet of Jews marked significant progress. When the city joined the Greek state in 1912, the Jewish population began to decline amidst confronting national interests. In 1912, its number was 62,000 out of a total population of 150,000 people, and shortly before World War II, Salonika Jews numbered 50,000 out of 250,000 inhabitants. Gradually, they became a minority in Greece. It was not the result of just a religious and national process, but of a political and cultural assimilation. Shortly before World War II, the community in Thessaloniki continued to be the largest in Greece. It had changed somewhat in cultural terms, many of its members were poor and some were economically powerful but all of them had problematic relations with the new inhabitants of Thessaloniki, namely the Greek refugees who came from Asia Minor in 1922. During the years of Metaxas’ dictatorship (1936-1941) and during World War I the conflicts between them decreased to a certain extent. But the subsequent occupation by the Nazis, their settlement in the city and their racist theories, fanatical anti-Semitism, their economic ambitions and the way in which they benefited from the contradictions in Thessaloniki and Greek society in the period between the two world wars marked the beginning of the end of the Jewish communities in Greece, as was the case in the rest of Europe.
Was the fate of Salonika Jews irreversible? Was there a way to save them?
It is difficult to answer this question... I think that every event in history "bears the stamp of a situation" as Marc Bloch said first.
In Thessaloniki, there was a combination of factors that contributed towards this result. Jews in the city were a minority, which was already apparent in a hostile environment, especially after the arrival of refugees. The existing 'national' fears of some of the Greek institutions that cooperated with the occupiers (the "Bulgarian danger" was already on the doorstep of the city) combined with the anti-Semitic stereotypes, the economic interests of the collaborators of the occupiers and of some of Thessaloniki's residents; the passive indifference of the majority of the citizens towards "the other"; the skilful use of differences from the period between the two world wars and of national issues by the German authorities; the confidence of Jews in the Chief Rabbi and the unity of the community, the lack of awareness of what was going to happen, the close family ties - these were some of the factors that contributed towards saving a small part of the Jewish population of Thessaloniki.
Things did not develop in this way in other cities with Jewish communities. In the Bulgarian occupation zone (and unlike the refused protection of Jews in Bulgaria that seems to have been the result of pressure on the part of society and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church but not a central political choice), there was an agreement to deliver to the Germans Jews from the Aegean region (i.e. from the occupied areas of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace). The first deportation of Jews, Greek citizens, from the occupied Greek territory took place in the area controlled by Bulgaria in February 1943, as stated by Vassilis Ritzaleos.